Monday, 5 July 2021

NIMBYs gonna NIMBY: How opponents of housing operate

 


Arguments against new development, especially housing development, are usually entirely selfish. This isn’t to say that concern for our self-interest isn’t entirely normal but rather that NIMBY arguments are seldom presented in terms of selfish interest but rather use conservative emotion around heritage, environment and ecology mixed with assumptions that the business of building things is driven entirely by greed and speculation.

Over the last 70 years we have constructed a planning system prioritising reasons to stop development while, as with the current National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), proclaiming a presumption in favour of development. If you peek inside the lid of the planning system, what you’ll find is thousands – yes thousands – of specific policy reasons why development should be stopped. These range from broadly sensible ideas about protecting flood plains and sustaining historic rights of way through to policies that make almost no sense at all such as the one preventing the use of a former velvet mill site in Denholme for a development of homes for social rent.

We have policies designating land as important in dozens of ways – heritage, ecology, special landscape, archaeology. We fuss about trees, orchids, badgers, butterflies and bats – let’s not overlook assorted amphibians. Anyone who has lived in (or in my case adjacent to) a listed building will have had the joy of dealing with planners - made even more fun when your listed building is surrounded by protected trees and located next to a conservation area.

If you want to oppose development, all of these policies can be brought to bear (one of my favourites is the one about being near a World Heritage Site – in Saltaire this is preventing the replacement of long derelict greenhouses with some new homes). And, as you arrive at the planning committee, you can be assured that the members are keen to find reasons to prevent development – after all politicians are in the business of votes and developers don’t have votes, future residents don’t have votes, NIMBYs do.

We are in the middle of the first real national debate about planning and its purpose since the current system was introduced in the 1940s. And this had meant that NIMBYs, instead of organising locally to oppose development, have attempted to define their position (other than we want to preserve the value of our homes and stopping new homes is the surest way to achieve this end). There are four aspects to the NIMBY position:

1.      The housing crisis is not the result of the planning system.

2.      NIMBYism is about protecting nature.

3.      There is enough housing and land for housing already.

4.      Reformed planning will mean the “wrong houses in the wrong places”.

NIMBYs are aided in each of these objectives by people who are not NIMBYs. Planners, or at least the bodies that represent planners like the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA), repeatedly say the problem doesn’t lie with their members or the planning system but with the land market and especially development behaviour around land banking and build out rates.

Local councils and their national body the Local Government Association (LGA) have also argued strongly that they are granting lots of permissions that don’t get developed showing, they claim, that the problem doesn’t lie with councils and planners but with developers.

NIMBYs have latched onto these arguments using them as the basis for their support of a planning system that, most of the time, favours existing homeowners. They go further by arguing that the objective assessment of housing need is unnecessary and that local authorities should determining planning applications purely based on local considerations. To move away from planning committees making essentially arbitrary decisions based on short term local political considerations would, they argue (and the LGA and RTPI support them in this argument) represent the undermining of local democracy. It is every homeowner’s right to be able to prevent development by lobbying a local planning committee.

The problem is that only 2% of the public ever engage with the planning system. This 2% generate headlines in the local paper with their carefully painted protest signs and marches by school children roped in to oppose developing housing in which they might live some time. Photographs of stern looking residents perhaps accompanied by a local councillor or an MP seem common enough (I’ve posed for a few) but the reality is that the planning system works well for the few organised opponents and badly for the thousands of people looking for housing.

But the argument here is a false one. Nobody is saying that the planning system is the sole cause of our housing crisis (low interest rates, rising wages and immigration all, for example, have an effect) but to say, in the face of evidence to the contrary, that the lack of housing supply isn’t substantially down to planning is wrong. Everything about the system is sclerotic, from how it’s resourced through to how long local plans take to draw up (Bradford started with its plan in 2008 and still doesn’t have a plan with agreed housing allocations in 2021).

The LGA point to the number of permissions granted and tell us that over a million homes haven’t been built despite getting those precious permissions. As plenty of people have pointed out, this misrepresents the idea of a planning permission. There’s a site, old railway sidings, in Cullingworth that is now on its third permission in the last 20 years. It remains undeveloped – perhaps because the permission granted is unviable, maybe because the landowner wants too much money. In Bradford alone there are hundreds of acres of brownfield sites that, at some point or another, have had a permission granted for development only to sit there undeveloped.

Then we’re told that this is because the owners are sitting on the land as a speculation, knowing that its value will rise because, you know, that’s what happens to land. Developers are greedy we’re told again and again. But these sites are not owned by developers, indeed their owners are often actively looking for developers (at least for a year or so after getting the permission). The problem is that the developers also know that people (their customers) don’t want houses in run down inner cities so development of, for example, the former Drummond Mills site on Lumb Lane in Manningham doesn’t happen because it is impossible to build homes there for less than the local selling price. If it costs £100,000 to build a house and a house the same size round the corner is selling for £75,000, you’ll probably not bother developing.

Planning permissions are a necessary but, in many cases, not sufficient reason for development to happen. Big housing developers bank land to maintain a pipeline of work for the business, but they are not applying for permissions then sitting on that permission until it lapses, to do so would be a waste of that business’s limited resource (time and money). A much bigger problem is how determined opposition (often surprisingly well funded) can delay a development for literally decades.

Meanwhile, out in the leafy suburbs, a different alliance is formed between NIMBYs and green activists. As one, Ros Coward from The Rainforest Alliance proclaimsNimby should no longer stand for “not in my back yard” but “nature in my back yard”. In a Guardian article, Coward sets out how she is opposing new housing in Wandsworth because there’s a poplar tree she likes. And she goes on to describe how all the NIMBY campaigns up and down the country, far from being the actions of selfish homeowners, are run by people whose main concern is nature. We’re told about the Community Planning Alliance an umbrella group for 460 local campaign groups. Each one probably has a story to tell about some trees, or bats or badgers. There will be talk about chalk streams, ancient woodland, flowers, butterflies and orchids. The word biodiversity will be littered across hundreds of letters to planning officers, MPs and councillors.

According to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government residential property accounts for 1.1% of England’s land use. Add in garden and suburban marginalia and we reach 5.9% of the land as housing. Nearly 85% of England is, in planning terms, undeveloped – agriculture, forest, heath, moor and marsh. To build 3 million houses at suburban densities (35/ha) would need about 75 square km. Sounds like a lot until you realise that this is 0.06% of England’s land area.

Even if all those 3 million homes were built on green belt, we would need less than 5% of that precious land. And nobody at all is proposing that all of England’s housing need could or should be met on green belt. If, for arguments sake, we assume that the use of green belt is double the use of other land (meaning roughly a third of the new homes would be on former green belt land) the amount of the green belt needed to build those homes represents just 1.5% of the total green belt.

It is true that building houses affects local environments (which is why we have all those rules about drainage, trees, bats, badgers, birds, beetles and flowers) but suburban development doesn’t have to be net negative for biodiversity. We can deliver better environmental outcomes from suburban development without compromising on the need for those new suburbs. The truth, however, is that no forecasts of housing demand, no OANs system, no “mutant algorithm”, results in the concreting over of the green belt. The absolute worst outcome suggests 5% of that green belt being *lost* and the reality would be around 1%.

Opposition to new housing on environmental grounds is entirely specious, there is no quantifiable environmental impact from housing development. And, if the local planning is done right, important things like ancient woodland, chalk streams and ancient archaeology can be protected. Those delightful old villages and towns can benefit from conservation areas, important scenery and vital ecology will get guarded by plans, all without the need to stop a single house being built.

“Well, if we don’t need much land to build the houses, let’s use the brownfield land”. So goes the response to all this explanation about how we can deliver on housing demand without concreting over England. The problem is that a lot of that brownfield land is in places people don’t want to live (those essentially valueless sites in inner city Bradford) and, even when the reuse of land is proposed, the NIMBYs are there with arguments about urban open space, ‘green lungs’ and so forth. Whether it’s underused former garage sites, old bus stations or the remnants of post-WWII slum clearance, local NIMBYs are there with there banners campaigning to stop new housing on brownfield sites because of a mulberry bush or a poplar tree. There’s even one campaign based on the apparent environmental and historical significance of some old sewage works.

So given that what NIMBYs like Ros Coward want is BANANAs (*build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone*), the campaigners need a different argument. And, once again there are some convenient folk who will tell you that the housing crisis isn’t about lack of housing but about the distribution of housing assets. Others will engage in complicated and convoluted arguments to show how if we forced people who only use one bedroom in a three-bedroom house to downsize then there’d be plenty. Another set of experts will tell us that the problem is empty homes, foreigners buying luxury flats or rich Londoners buying second homes. And then there are housing charities like Shelter and the housing professionals’ association, the Chartered Institute of Housing who say that the problem isn’t planning but rather that government isn’t giving councils and housing associations enough money to build new social homes. Of course, the NIMBYs will oppose those social homes too if they’re proposed for one of those brownfield sites with a tree.

The commonest argument from NIMBYs now is that suburban development (or luxury flats if you’re in the city) is the wrong housing in the wrong place. How can building three- and four-bedroom detached houses in Surbiton or Sutton Coldfield solve the housing crisis? Look at those housing waiting lists, those people can’t afford the prices for that suburban housing, it’s just developers being greedy. What we need is new council houses to replace the right-to-buy and these will, of course, be built on those brownfield sites in poor inner-city areas (so as not to risk smelly oiks arriving in our nice semi-rural suburb with their crime and their noise).

Meanwhile, the people who really do need better housing – tens of thousands of renters in London, Birmingham, Brighton, Oxford, and Bristol – don’t get what they want. If Shelter and the CIH had their way those renters would still be renters, just renting from the council rather than a private landlord. I’m sure that, while some would be happy with this (not least because the rent would be subsidised), it isn’t the home ownership that most aspire to. That will only come if you build a lot more suburban housing, places where they can do what their parents and grandparents did – settle down in a decent house with a garage and a garden to raise a family.

Britain’s housing crisis is a huge challenge and planning reform is one way to meet that challenge. We probably need to build 3 million new homes across all tenures to catch up with five decades of not building enough new homes and to meet emerging demand from new household formation and immigration. This is not a small order, and it cannot be done without making changes – painful ones for some people – to the planning system. Alongside planning change, we also need leasehold reform, better protection for private renters, stronger environment health enforcement, and new investment in social housing. But getting the land supply for at least 3 million homes should be the priority. If we do this in a way that meets suburban expectations, family formation and new working practices as well as economic development then one of the biggest drags on our economy and society is removed.

There is no good argument at the national level for the NIMBY position that meeting this need for homes can be met without increasing land availability in places people can access the jobs, schools, and leisure they demand. Getting that land allocation agreed needs a strategic national view and the willingness of local neighbourhoods to engage with the process of making plans for housing and associated infrastructure. Instead of simply defending a failed system, perhaps we should be talking about how to balance the interests of local communities and the urgent need to provide the homes for current and emerging generations. NIMBYs argue that the planning system works, that new housing is an environmental threat, that there is sufficient land supply, and that reform means the wrong homes in the wrong places. They are wrong in each case but too few people are saying that we can deliver for local communities – schools, health, businesses, active travel, public transport – and plan for the 3 million new homes we need to resolve our housing crisis.

Planning reform is not a threat to the environment, does not undermine community cohesion or infrastructure, and does not reduce local democracy. Done right it allows a more sustainable system involving more people and more communities in the planning process. Instead of just objecting to reform, let’s work to get the best possible system given competing priorities and demands.

I fear though that, in the end, NIMBYs gonna NIMBY.

Addendum: I've been asked what we should do with those value-free inner city sites in Bradford. If we are taking green space elsewhere the answer is to green them. I did a blog post setting out how this might work a while back - link here

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Sunday, 7 February 2021

"Facebook, Google and Amazon are a bad thing and must be smashed up". When did Tory MPs get to be this stupid?

The Face of Evil


Well I suppose it is popular.  But there was a time when Conservative Chairmen of Select Committees didn't indulge in such populism:
It is a lesson today’s great monopolists – Bezos, Zuckerberg, Brin and Page – should heed.

For their businesses exert ever more control over our everyday lives. They believe their power is unlimited. And, what’s more, the authorities, in the main, are letting them get away with it.

These tech giants give the impression that democratically elected governments can be ignored, that they can use the most private information about millions of us for profit, without our knowledge and all the while treating the obligation of paying tax as optional.
Literally nothing in this quotation is accurate and a good deal of it isn't true. Yet Tobias Ellwood can get a whole column to present us with a populist diatrabe of spectacular an dmonumental ignorance, one that will have the Daily Mail's readership waving tiny Union Flags and nodding along in agreement that we should stick it to these evil (*checks lists of evils*) Californians.
Never underestimate them. The power of these big tech companies is almost limitless. They know everything about us: not just our name, age, date of birth and spending habits but also the identity of our friends, our private online search interests and our political and sexual orientation.
We could, of course, point out that they know these things because you gave them that information freely in exchange for access to services that add value to your lives. Just as you pay a mortgage to a big, anonymous multinational bank, and heat the home it funds with energy produced by a distant company owned by a foreign government. The power of those tech businesses is limited by their continuing ability to sell advertising not by an essentially mythical belief that Facebook and Amazon thrive on the back of their users being "the product".

For Tobias Ellwood, the solution is a different sort of monopoly, a national one:
Why couldn’t Britain have a search engine of its own, or a British Facebook? The case is overwhelming: it is time to tame the Wild West of the World Wide Web.
The fireworks explode, the flags wave - a British Facebook!

It should worry us that a senior member of parliament, from the party that claims to understand business and markets, can put forward an argument that is little different from those peddled by the loopier supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Ellwood tells us his ideas (quite how Britain 'breaks up' companies owned and managed in a different country isn't explained) are needed to save democracy, protect newspapers and make a better world where wise men like Tobias oversee the international regulation of the Internet.

There are a lot of things a Conservative government could be doing post-Covid such as supporting families and marriage, reforming the planning system, investing in schools, improving further education, building more houses, planting lots of trees, fixing local roads - a hundred or more simple practical actions to make for a better country. And none of them involve arbitrary decisions by government to smash up successful, value-adding businesses like Facebook and Amazon. None of the good things a Conservative government could do involve slapping taxes on business for having the audacity to make it easier for us to find things online. None of the good things we could do are about attacks on free markets simply because Twitter banned Donald Trump and lots of (largely self-interested) newspaper publishers believe all news was true prior to Facebook.

...

 


Friday, 15 January 2021

Stopping somebody else having a decent home somewhere nice isn't democracy, it's selfishness

But CPRE won't let you have one

We're off again.
A campaign backed by 18 British countryside and environmental groups has called on Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, to abandon the Government's controversial proposals to build the new homes under a reformed planning system.

The RSPB, Woodland Trust and the Ramblers walking charity are among those saying the plans would be disastrous for Britain's green spaces. The CPRE, a countryside charity leading the campaign, warned that the proposals would see a "halving" of local democracy, with little option for local people to object to developments.
It doesn't come as a surprise to see this coalition of organisations that have been, to put it mildly, at the forefront of the UK's NIMBY Movement. A movement that has resulted in the housing crisis that, on days when the media aren't complaining about new homes spoiling their nice view, we hear about so often. The crisis of rising rough sleeping, escalating waiting lists, sky-high rents, housing costs sucking up ever larger parts of people's incomes, and a wrold for some where the choice between paying the rent and feeding the kids is real. It is an act of callous selfishness to think keeping your view is more important than housing the poor, the young and the homeless - yet that is precisely what CPRE is about, what NIMBYism gives us, the ultimate 'we're alright Jack' outlook.

It is striking that, despite their utter selfishness, the positioning of this CPRE objection to building any houses anywhere at all is now couched in terms of democracy. As if my 'right' to object to somebody building houses is more important than people having affordable homes to live in? And, as if the objections of a few hundred people should be allowed to trample over the needs and desires of people who'd like to buy or rent a home somewhere nice where they can reach their job?

This is the reality of the CPRE campaign. It's a celebration of the loud. A championing of government by aggressive lobbying. The view that being able to stop your neighbour building in his or her field is the acme of democracy, that removing (in truth reforming) that degree of interference will "halve" local democracy.

Put simply this is nonsense - unless you think that the entire purpose of local governmen tis as a conduit for objections to things. The government's proposed move from the current system to a zoning system doesn't remove local choice or local control, it shifts it away from the ridiculous situation where developments that local planning policy says are appropriate for housing development get blocked by the discretionary planning system. Choices about that local planning policy will still be subject to democratic control, they just won't be as conveniently exploitable as CPRE and its friends would like.

Our planning system is the single biggest reason we have a housing crissis. Not just that but it's a huge drain on our economic growth and development, slowing down social mobility, reducing choice and adding huge unneeded costs. Reforming it would be the single best thing we could do to meet the needs of rising generation, many who see no prospect of doing what my generation did and buying their own home. The proposed reforms - and the need, denied by CPRE, for at least 300,000 new homes per year - represent a small step towards a planning system that protects the best of our countryside while allowing the development of homes for all.


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Friday, 8 January 2021

Housing developers are not greedy.



"Greedy developers!" How many times have we heard this from people opposing new housing? When the planning application for new homes lands, it is a matter of seconds before somebody is muttering about how it's all about profit and the developers don't care about the community. At times this seems to be the Labour Party's national policy - their opposition to planning reform gets framed as "the reforms are a developers charter", "this is just about helping the Tories' developer friends and funders". And Conservatives, Lib Dems, Greens - every variation of politician - aren't any better, all of them find it easy to shout "greedy developer" while mopping up crocodile tears about young people not being able to afford the rent, let alone buy a home.

The reality, as any councillor who has stayed awake while sitting on a planning committee know, isn't anything like this - indeed, while the greedy developer remains a popular planning committee caricature, those councillors will see more of developers saying they can't build because the development isn't viable than they will developers greedily exploiting the chance to build houses for people to live in.

I hear you when you say "but housing is so expensive" and assume that this is because those greedy developers are making millions. And I'm here to say that, while such sentiment is understandable, it really isn't the house builder making the greedy profits, it's the landowner. The developer is lumbered with the high land costs that make up the largest part of the house price. Remember too that these high land prices are a direct consequence of the planning system - by limiting the available development land, the planners hand a huge windfall to the landowner. The developer then buys the land at the planning-inflated price.

The planning system then imposes, often with good reason, a load of additional costs and charges on development. This starts with the cost of getting permission to build the homes at all (even when the planners have already allocated the land as suitable for housing). For a large developmnet this can run to millions as we require pre-application consultations, a series of environmental impact studies, heritage assessments, tree studies, bird counts, bat and badger searches all followed by more developer funded consultation. Then the planners, often at the request of statutory consultees like the health service, education, environment agency, highways and water companies, add further requirements, each of them adding costs to the development. Finally, there's a 'Section 106' agreement (or Community Infrastructure Levy requirement) so as to fund school places, affordable housing, parks, playgrounds and anything else the planners can crowbar into the developer's costs. Not a single footing has been dug and the planners have added millions to the cost of development.

Unless that is, the developer can demonstrate that some of these community infrastructure costs simply make the whole development non-viable. To check this the planning authority usually employs an independent valuer to see whether the developer is pulling the wool over the planning committee's eyes. In my experience, nearly every one of these council-commissioned viability studies verify what the developer is saying. There's an argument that this extra cost ought to come off the land value but, in most cases, that ship has already sailed (probably in the former landowner's new yacht).

Viability studies use industry gross margins as their test - usually 15-20% depending on land values (the higher the land value the lower the margin). And this gross margin isn't 'profit' but covers a lot of other costs for the developer - borrowing costs, options on land so as to maintain a development pipeline, up-front costs of future development, design and architects costs, valuation consultants, and the central administration required by any business. I don't expect you to weep beef tea over the plight of house builders but they are not any more greedy than any other business and are probably less profitable than lots of those businesses.

All of these things - land prices, planning costs, mitigating planning requirements, community infrastructure - may be good things but their net effect is that homes get more expensive not that developers get more greedy. And the price of homes is constrained by the housing market - the developer can't make homes more expensively than those in the second hand market. I recall a development in inner city Bradford where the cost of building two- and three-bedroom family homes was more than similar sized homes in the local market - the homes got built but ended up as rentals rather than the intended market housing.

If we're looking for greediness in our housing system, the place to look is in the reason why the land is so expensive. That reason is because we have chosen politically to restrict the supply of land at the urban fringe (indeed we have an "urban fringe" that amounts to nearly 15% of England's land area) so as to protect the interests, and asset values, of the people - you and me mostly - who live in or near those urban fringes. Meanwhile, another group of relatively wealthy self-interested people are opposing development on city brownfield sites on the basis of it not being affordable, being too tall, not enough car parking - plus, of course, the familiar objections about doctors, schools and heritage.

The housing crisis is a consequence of our greed not developer greed. We say we want housing but then say, regardless of where we live, that over the road from us is the wrong place for that housing. And politicians suck up to this selfishness (and our votes) by calling the developers greedy for wanting to make a net margin of under 5% on building the homes everybody agrees we need.

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Monday, 28 December 2020

Urban densification isn't the answer to Britain's housing crisis, it's a sop to the NIMBYs

 

Gentle density
 

There is an element of the town planning world that, for all sorts of reasons, believes it knows better what sort of places people want than do actual people. This is the tradition of Le Corbusier whose ideas encompassed super-dense high-rise cities filled with well-behaved peons. A tradition that, when put into practice by the great man's adherents, gave us America's urban housing projects, crime-ridden tower block estates in South London, and the worst of Paris's banlieues. Contrary to the sociological evidence, town planners and architects persist with the idea that other people would be better off in very dense urban environments than in the suburban places those people say they prefer.

In doing this these planners and architects project their own biases onto the system. Often this amounts to single, well-paid, middle class graduates telling less well paid non-graduate workers with families that living in a flat in "gentle density" is so much better than the four-bed detached home in a good suburb the families aspire to. All of this will get mixed up with the current, almost religious, views on climate change - "suburbs are bad for the planet, you know" is the message used to shame aspiring young families out of buying that smart suburban home near good schools. We're told we have to live fifteen minutes from everything and that the motor car is the source of all development evils.

As the pandemic plays out its course, we approach a huge political crunch between the desire to spread out (and in doing so reduce the risks from contagion) and the efforts of planners, urged on by NIMBYs, to squeeze us into ever smaller spaces. On one front we have ideas that embrace space and suburbia:

The pandemic has served as a hammer deconstructing our cities, our neighborhoods, our homes, and our lives and allows them to be reconstructed in productive ways. The year in 2021 will be the start of a new, more flexible, more productive, and happier year. The year will be enhanced by corporate leaders providing their employees more freedom and flexibility. The year will be enriched and made safer by elected officials allowing their constituents to spread out their activities. Neighborhoods will flourish and cities will thrive if city officials and planners embrace Organic Urbanism, emphasizing the natural rhythms and desires of how and where people want to live and work.
And on the other the continued urging towards urban density, apartment living and a sort of ultimately purposeless anti-family existence.
In short, the correct post-pandemic response may be to urbanify the suburban communities that have thus far been spared the brunt of COVID-19. Yes, that might mean greater risk for community spread the next time we find ourselves in a similar crisis—but we should nonetheless strive for the widest, most inclusive outcomes. The infrastructure we invest in—more housing to drive down rent prices, rapid transit to decrease car dependency, and more grocery stores to mitigate food deserts—would go a long way toward aiding our most vulnerable communities.
Meanwhile, as evidence connecting crowding and contagion grows, we are told by density's advocates that, of course, their sort of density won't have the problems of crowding and exposure that characterised the old forms of density. The model such advocates like - and bizarrely present as deliverable - is streets of five-story, Georgian pastiche. Roads filled with the same sort of anti-family environment as the skyscraper homes built in the last couple of decades except with a prettier front door and some lonely street trees.

Governments seize on the idea of 'gentle density' or proposals to "urbanify the suburban communities" because they allow a new justification to act in the interests of another influential community - activists on the urban fringes who oppose new housing, the NIMBYs. As one pro-NIMBY politician, Neil O'Brien put it:
"...infill is the type of development that attracts most opposition. That’s unsurprising: it means building right next to people. And specifically, to people who chose to live on the edge to get a nice view."
To indulge the narrow interests of these people (who have the time, money and votes to worry politicians everywhere) planners draw in concerns about regeneration or the environment to rationalise the campaign to stop new suburban housing. My favourite is one dreamed up by NIMBY campaign group CPRE: "if London was at the same density as Milton Keynes it would cover the whole of East Anglia". The thing is that most of Milton Keynes is green - either gardens, public open space and protected marginalia or else undeveloped farmland. To house 8 million people at suburban densities (around 40 homes per hectare) would need a lot of land but probably only a third of Suffolk not the whole of East Anglia. And nobody's proposing over three million new homes in one location.

"It'll be different this time" seems to be the mantra of planners and architects. Unfortunately, if we build high-rise tenements, terraces and walk-up blocks, all funded by generous government grants for social housing, and then fill them with the poor, it won't be any different from any other occasion when governments did this sort of development. And again, people like Neil O'Brien promote such housing development as 'regeneration', providing a rationale for plonking it on surface car parks and former factory sites in the inner city - literally dumping the poor in the worst places. The real rationale for O'Brien (and politicians from every party), of course, is that we can't have those sort of people coming to live in smart, suburban housing, I mean listen to those accents, look at what they wear, it'll spoil the area, it'll cost me votes.

Less that 5% of England has houses on. And to meet the needs of those in substandard housing and the desires of aspiring families, we need to develop about 1% more. This development should be on the urban fringe, in extensions to existing places rather than grand new town schemes or in expensive and unpleasant inner city 'regeneration'. Increasing the size of a village or a small town by 15-20% doesn't destroy it's nature but it does help to sustain the social infrastructure that makes these places work - the doctors surgery, the chemist, the post office, the village hall or community centre, convenience shopping and a couple of pubs. Stopping hew housing because a minority think they own a view - the Neil O'Brien proposal - is at least honest. It's far worse to squeal 'climate emergency' and block those much-need homes on the back of not liking cars or myths about suburbs being less 'sustainable' than high-rise inner city developments.

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Sunday, 13 December 2020

Of course art (and gardening) can be political, it's just better when it isn't


Gardening bloke James Wong was again trolling the Twiterati by saying that gardening (more specifically British gardening) has "racism in its DNA". All this came in response to another Tweet from Ed Wall who is the head of Landscape Architecture Urbanism at the University of Greenwich:
Gardens are denied their political agency because they too often reveal uncomfortable politics of individual ownership, spatial inequity, & unsustainable practices. There needs to be more honest conversations about gardens in the UK!
I'm not going to get into the issues James Wong raises except to say that I'm sure he's right about non-white people facing racism within the gardening world - it would be a miracle if that world was, unlike everywhere else, without any racism. I'm also sure that the use of terms like 'native' and 'heritage' are not indications of racism even if they sometimes point to a degree of ignorance about just how few of the everyday plants in our gardens are native. And there's also a slightly jingoistic tendency in British gardening to believe that, somehow, we're the only people who do gardens well.

The thing is that Wong frames the argument from the perspective of the elite gardening world - the designers, plant experts, and gardening gurus - not the everyday world of the average person's little garden. Gardening is 'art', and like other art, Wong thinks, should be infused - is inevitably infused - with politics:
About five years ago, I was admiring one of my favourite conceptual gardens at the Hampton Court flower show. Among a collection of avant garde horticultural installations was a design inspired by the issues facing displaced peoples around the world. In the 10 minutes I stood there, before being dragged away with work, I overheard at least half a dozen visitors decrying it, not for its planting, hardscape design, or use or colour or form, but because of the perceived importance of “keeping politics out of gardening”.
Again I didn't see this garden but I was struck by what Wong overheard and that, he says, "...would anyone have ever made a statement like that in an art gallery? After stepping out of the theatre or a film screening? Going to a concert?"

The answer to Wong's questions, in every case, is 'yes'. Lots of ordinary people who visit these arts events come away pleased with the art but muttering about "keeping the politics out". What these people object to isn't really politics but a sort of artistic preachiness, to the idea that art's job isn't to please or excite but rather to shock, disturb and upset. So much of the 'politics' presented by artist is simplistic, sloganised and lacking in any depth or analysis. It is not intended to inform or educate but to signal the artists adopted righeousness, an adoption made easier when the artist doesn't really challenge recieved thinking but simply apes what Kristian Niemietz calls "high status opinion".

These opinions are reflected in Ed Wall's Tweet too - "...uncomfortable politics of individual ownership, spatial inequity, & unsustainable practices..." speaks to the central conceit of easy progressive politics, of those 'high status opinions. Gardens are political - people own land, some people don't, and anyway the climate emergency. You only need to add something about neoliberalism to arrive at a distillation of modern progressivism, especially when you add Wong's contention that it's all racist anyway. And that people who say "keep politics out of gardening" are obviously low status and probably racist.

Too much of the politics in art is levered in there to grab attention and adds little to the art itself. Yet artists, designers and writers are now taught that without a 'message', without that infusion of politics, their work is less good, less important and probably less valuable (to the high status elite who troop through the doors of state subsidised galleries, theatre and music). Gardening remains more inclusive, a genuinely middle class pursuit more typified by hints about how to grow things, how to lay out a garden and going "wow" at beautiful flowers, trees and foliage. Until recently the garden shows reflected this simplicity with the displays showcasing the use of materials, creative planting and great husbandry. Wong's favourite garden begins to change this by making the art of garden design about a message rather than a celebration of craft. Just as with elite theatre and the visual arts the garden designer is now expected to impress the high status viewer with their political message, something that brings out the "why are they so political" response from many of the regular visitors to the flower show.

We're going to see the same divide emerge in the horticultural world as we see elsewhere in the arts - the great and feted elite parading indulgent and safe progressive politcal messages while the old audience drifts away to places that see the art as being about beauty, craft and imagination not ramming a one-eyed political agenda down peoples' throats.

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Friday, 11 December 2020

If you want civic pride then you need accountable, practical and, above all, local government.

 

Sadly, "...it's means hanging baskets..." comes across as the standout, throwaway line in a largely sensible article by Rachel Wolf about the matter of levelling up. What she reports on is a sense of troubled civic pride that anyone with ears in the North will have heard - not just in recent times but for decades. Certainly it was a feature of my 24 years as a local councillor in Bradford:

People are deeply proud of where they live, and it is the primary source of their identity. They feel embarrassed and angry about what is happening to their towns. Shops are closed, the cenotaph has graffiti on it, people often feel unsafe. The pandemic has accelerated an existing decline.  When the town opens up again, what will there be to do? In a lot of places, there’s an event — a local fireworks display; an event in the park; a well-known market — that has disappeared. No one knows why. People can’t park in the center and the buses are an expensive, irregular joke.

But this isn't about some sort of Potempkin village strategy for Boris Johnson to adopt, rather we should ask why -  why is it that this sense of pride is so damaged, why is there graffiti all over the place, why do people spit in the street, why don't we have park keepers any more, why is the kiddies' playground vandalised? A thousand questions about the immediate environment in which people live - the potholes, the unmended walls, the dog poo, the litter, and the impression that anyone using a car to go shopping is either a convenient source of cash or else the spawn of satan.

I have an old film, made in 1964 when Penge Urban District Council was abolished with the creation of the new London Borough of Bromley. I keep the film because it features my maternal grandfather (that's him and my Grandma behind him in the picture) who was the last Chairman of that Council. Somewhere I also have the proceedings from the final council and accompanying dinner - this sent out a message at once sad and hopeful. Sad at the passing of a genuinely local council looking after the interests of SE20 residents but hopeful that the new arrangements brought new opportunities and a shared future with the District's neighbours in Beckenham, Bromley and Orpington.

In the film, produced by the local Rotary Club, that sense of civic pride described by Rachel Wolf comes across strongly. Every part of the town is celebrated - Crystal Palace Park, the High Street, the market, the council housing, the pubs and, of course, more famous things like Peggy Spencer's dance school. Plus my grandpa, sporting his chain of office, at a visit to an old folks' home. That civic pride oozes from every second of the film.

So what changed? How did we get from that world of the 1960s when a working class suburb in South London took such pride in itself, to a time when ordinary people despair at the state of their town? We're a lot richer but that ought to have made things better not worse. We're certainly healthier - my grandpa died a slow death in his '70s from work-related lung disease something that's far less prevalent these days. And mostly we're happier.

The answer lies, in part at least, in the decision to reform London's government in 1964. Where there'd previously been a patchwork of little district councils all fussing and bothering over things like litter and hanging baskets, we got instead large unitary councils with grand strategies and big schemes. And today this process of shutting down little district councils continues with developing proposals for unitary councils in, for example, North Yorkshire. Councils with a fighting chance of developing that civic pride get replaced by huge councils that wade through the clamerous, competing calls from dozens of towns and villages. Meanwhile the cost pressures from social services climb and climb, taking up an ever growing portion of the council's budget - at least two thirds and nearing 80% in a few cases.

It has been the shift in local government resourses from visible to social services (or "place" to "people" as the modern jargon puts it) that created many of the problems identified by Rachel Wolf. Statutory obligations to provide care outweigh the desire to make places look great - so the litter budget gets cut, the parks department is shrunk and the library service is stripped to its legal bones. Meanwhile the elimination of local accountability for the police, removing control of business rates from local councils and a bewildering collection of inspectorates all signal to the councillor and the resident that local government doesn't matter. Yet every single problem identified by Rachel Wolf was once, and now isn't, something done by local government. We had little district councils with councillors who knew their neighbours to do things like pick up litter, collect bins, put swings in the park, provide car parks and clean up graffiti. Bigger city councils also ran buses and the police force.

If we want to "sweat the small stuff", then we need a new life for local councils rather than the grandiose devolution schems and proposals for distant, 'strategic' unitary councils. And we need to either fund councils properly to provide social services or remove those services to a national agency or agencies. My issue with the 'levelling up' debate is the view, clear in Rachel Wolf's article, that it is central government 'funds' - the 'vast plethora of funds' - that matter. If, and I think the people surveyed by Wolf are right here, civic pride matters, then the best way to do this is to rediscover the sort of local government large towns and cities lost in the 1960s and 1970s and which current policy is destroying in more rural and small town England.

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